A stitch in time may save nine, but Bitty Birdie Design quilter Barb Patrick has discovered that a few thousand stitches save countless good times. Ms Patrick uses her creative talents to help others preserve their memories in quilts and other sewn items, block by block, pattern by pattern.
She has made hundreds of memory quilts for customers who bring her materials ranging from children's T-shirts hoarded away over the years to baby clothes and shirts and sweaters from a deceased person near and dear to someone's heart. She has printed photos onto material and turned the cloth photographs into a product that warms the heart as much as it warms the body.
Sewing was never Ms Patrick's vocation, nor did she aspire to be an artist. So how does a mother of three go from not being able to sew on a button to owning her own thriving, home-based quilting company? For Ms Patrick, it was a combination of inspiration, innovation, and a groundswell of creativity that spurred her on.
Bitty Birdie Design started out 11 years ago when Ms Patrick, then a stay-at home mother with a 2-year-old and a newborn, was seeking a hobby "to keep me from going crazy. My mother has always been an on and off quilter. I'm very visual, but I had no interest in the actual sewing," she said. What the former market researcher and event planner did love, though, was fabric.
"My mother taught me how to sew a straight line on a machine, and that Christmas, my brother and husband bought me an inexpensive sewing machine," she said. The brothers-in-law made a bet with each other. "One said I would never touch the machine. The other said I would become obsessed. Guess which one was right?" she laughed. "I took a quilting class in Bethel, and I've never looked back," said Ms Patrick.
She started out making baby quilts and gift quilts for friends and family. "I even made a 'divorce' quilt once for a friend going through a difficult divorce. It had a happy theme to it, to cheer her up. I mostly made the baby quilts, though, because that's kind of where my life was at then," she said.
In 2009, with the youngest of their children in school the full day, Ms Patrick started thinking that the quilting could be more than a hobby. "I decided it could be my business, and I started thinking of a name," she said. She had always loved bird motifs, and knew that she wanted a lot of "B's" in the name, like her own first name. " Bitty Birdie came to mind, and that's what I went with," Ms Patrick said.
Word Of Mouth
Most of her business comes through word of mouth, she said, and keeps the business at a level that keeps her busy without losing her love of the craft. She leaves her business card at a few area fabric and quilting stores, as well. When a customer found her card at a store and brought Ms Patrick an armload of clothing from a recently deceased and beloved grandmother, asking if she could turn the clothes into a quilt to give to an as-yetunborn great-grandchild, "It struck a chord with me," she said. "Both my husband and I have lost relatives in sudden and tragic accidents. I realized that I liked the intent of this type of project. You end up with something beautiful to honor someone's memory. It solves the problem for a lot of people, about the difficulty of disposing of a loved one's clothing after death," she said.
She considers herself a nostalgic person, and often finds herself laughing and crying with clients as they discuss a custom design. "It's often mothers who come to me, especially with the T-shirts. Sports, high school, college, road race, or vacation T-shirts - whatever represents what is important to that person - are quilted together to make a special comforter. The T-shirt quilts make great graduation gifts, and the child goes away with a little piece of their childhood keeping them warm," she said. The memory quilts have evolved into her main business she said, and have become the most meaningful part of what she does.
Each quilt is custom designed, with input from the customer as to colors and the integration of those special items brought to her, said Ms Patrick. She has incorporated slippers and hats into quilts, and turned a father's favorite old sweater into sewn ornaments for his children, after he passed away. "I think what makes my quilts special is this kind of personalization," she said.
"I've made quilts for children who have lost parents, or who have lost a sibling. I worried at first that these memory quilts might make people sad, but I have never heard that. People are so happy to have something warm to comfort them. Quilts are comforting all on their own," she pointed out, "and it's a positive product in general. Then you intertwine memoriesâ€"
She makes smaller, yet equally comforting memory items for those not ready to invest in having an entire custom quilt created.
"Two-sided pillows made from T-shirts are very popular, and I make fabric banners from sports shirts," said Ms Patrick. Baby onesies can be quilted with the baby's name, as well.
Ms Patrick is quick to say yes when asked to donate for a charity fundraiser, she admitted. "I always donate to the Head O' Meadow School auction, I've made a basketball-themed quilt for a charity event in Bridgeport, one for the upcoming EverWonder Children's Museum fundraiser, and one for the Arts Festival that is going to be auctioned off late this winter or in early spring. It's hard for me to say no to things like this," said Ms Patrick.
The quilts take shape in a small room off of the master bedroom of her historic farmhouse in Newtown. A woven basket overflows with scraps of material and shelves are stacked with bolts of colorful cloth. A wall above the fireplace boasts two large "inspiration boards," where Ms Patrick posts magazine pages, photographs, bits of fabrics, and any other little item that might one day fire up her imagination. "It's like Pinterest [the visual social site], only real," she said.
The carpeted floor is strewn with the beginnings of a quilt, and her sewing machine catches the natural light flowing through tall windows.
"I go up here for a couple of minutes, and it turns into a couple of hours. It's probably the smallest room in our house, but it's where my husband and the kids will come and just hang out and talk to me," she said.
"In a weird way," said Ms Patrick, "sewing is almost like meditation. It's soothing and relaxing to me. It takes me down a notch when I sit in front of that machine."
In terms of the future for Bitty Birdie Design, Ms Patrick said that she would like to experiment more with transferring images or silk-screening fabrics. "I wish I had more time for sewing and to take more classes, but with three kids in three different schools, I'm busy. And I don't want to miss anything with them. I'm happy to work with new customers, of course, but I want to be sure to strike a balance between a home-based and enjoyable business and keeping up with my family," she said.
She is collaborating with her friend Jason Rabatin, an artist, on creating "pillowish" stuffed animals, and has outlined a book. "It's about the intersection of loss and quilting, the journeys with loss and quilts unifying it all," said Ms Patrick.
For now, it is the satisfaction she feels in helping people through the grief process that makes Bitty Birdie Design more than just a business, she said. "If I can give this [manner of comfort] to people, I'm so content."
Ironically, she has yet to piece together memory quilts for herself, her husband, or her children. "I do save my kids' T-shirts, though. Someday."
All in all, she has done pretty well, she added wryly, for a woman whose last work review stated that she was "not creative enough."
There is always a new challenge around the corner, and a new story to piece together at Bitty Birdie Design. "This lifetime will not be long enough," said Ms Patrick, "to sew what I want to!"
To see Ms Patrick's complete photo portfolio, visit Facebook.com/bittybirdiedesign. She can be contacted at email@example.com or at 203-270-6966 for consultation on custom quilts. Bitty Birdie Design also provides quilt restoration and repair services.